Imagine the whitest comedy ever made. Subtract Steve Martin and/or Ben Stiller, add animatronic babies, and you’ve got the gist of License to Wed. It begins with the courtship of Ben (John Krasinski) and Sadie (Mandy Moore), truncated to fit a sticky-sweet montage of Caucasians-in-love. If only it stopped there. But the film, only five minutes old and already tiresome, trudges on to Sadie’s parents’ 30th wedding anniversary party, where Ben intends to take the next step.
Indeed, Ben proposes, Sadie accepts, and wedding plans begin. Though Ben is thinking about the Caribbean for their nuptials, his idea is quickly dashed when Sadie’s parents insist they be married in the church her late grandfather help build, so that family friend Reverend Frank (Robin Williams) can conduct the service. Ben agrees to all of it, thus avoiding what would be the couple’s first fight. But Reverend Frank’s inclusion quickly proves to be a really bad idea, for the film and for the couple.
In order for Reverend Frank to officiate the wedding, Ben and Sadie must complete his intensive marriage preparation course, which, the Reverend warns, is not for the squeamish. His “Ministers of Tomorrow” choirboy protégé (Josh Flitter), who throughout the film behaves more like a mafioso than a religious pupil, backs up the course, citing a 100% success rate for couples who have done things the Reverend’s way. Almost immediately, Sadie’s faith in the minister is challenged. Their first group session, inexplicably held in the back of a seedy bar, depicts mostly white, upper middle class couples arguing about balancing their checkbooks and getting lost while driving. Though Ben and Sadie contend that they’ve never argued and rather enjoy spending time with one another, the group insists that they, too, will eventually bicker like the Costanzas. It’s just a matter of time and contrivance.
As these couplehood clichés mount, the Reverend taunts Ben (throwing baseballs at his face) and bugs Ben and Sadie’s apartment — you know, so he can burst in when they come too close to breaking his no-sex-until-the-honeymoon rule. Just as the choirboy forewarned, it appears that “Reverend Frank is everywhere.” This man of the cloth is not only omniscient, but also voyeuristic, lurking in a surveillance van outside of the couple’s apartment at all hours, like a mean-spirited Santa disguised as a pastor. And yet, for all the over-plotting, Williams’ usual energy suffers under the collar, his signature hyper-word-association only extending to an assortment of religious puns (“Get the flock outta here!”), never mustering any irony as a respected clergyman mad with power.
Perhaps Williams’ slack performance is understandable, because no amount of shtick could temper the inane series of trials Rev. Frank designs to test the limits of Ben and Sadie’s love, not to mention the limits of John Krasinski’s eyebrows-raised-in-disbelief face, perfected on The Office. Rev. Frank drops off a set of robotic infants for the couple to practice their baby-tending, just as Ben’s best friend Joel (DeRay Davis) needs emergency babysitting of his two sons (Dominic, Diego, and Devin Swingler), causing predictable mayhem occurs right before the couple’s appointment to select their gift registry at Macy’s — oh no! While the live children run amok in the mall, the robo-babies barf, cry, and shit blue fudge. Ben grows frantic, his eyes getting bigger and bigger and bigger. He’s overwhelmed, while Sadie obliviously shops, shops, shops.
Ben’s growing frustration with Sadie, inspired by the Reverend, is exacerbated by his own apparent sense of inadequacy compared to her bourgie family. But, because the film spends so much time on Rev. Frank’s kooky and invasive behavior, we see very little of the couple’s actual relationship. So when their future is thrown into question, it’s hard to root for them. As far as the audience can tell, their relationship seems based on Ben biting his tongue, and Sadie’s blind trust in the Reverend’s methods, no matter how absurd or antagonistic.
Sadie’s a puzzle the film doesn’t even pretend to solve. Her upbringing epitomizes white privilege, which here translates into trite observations about religion and marriage. Sadie’s divorced older sister Lindsey (Christine Taylor), concedes that her failed marriage consisted of her watching Titanic every night, until her husband left her for a dental hygienist. The symbolism of the sinking ship seems lost on both women, who smile and hug and just keep shopping.
So even when Ben manages to reveal that Reverend Frank’s apartment bugging is illegal, and it looks like some rationality might save the day, the Rev is never held accountable. Instead, the film careens along to its ludicrous “happy ending.” Director Ken Kwapis comes with nearly a dozen episodes of The Office to his credit, and he enlists no less than three cameos by the show’s veterans, as if trying to save this ship. But I’m afraid that no amount of Angela Kinsey’s deadpan can make the accidental wedding band inscription, “Never to Fart,” anything less than excruciating. In fact, everything about License to Wed so completely contaminates its talent that I may never be able to enjoy The Office again.